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George Frideric HANDEL (1685-1759)
Alexander's Feast or The Power of Music, HWV75 (1736)* [86:30]
Concerto in F, Op.3/4a [10:13]
Felicity Palmer (soprano); Anthony Rolfe Johnson (tenor); Stephen Roberts (bass);Stockholm Bach Choir; Concentus Musicus Wien/Nikolaus Harnoncourt
rec. live*, Festsaal der Freien Waldorfschule, Bremen, Germany, October 1977. ADD.
Libretto in English with French and German translations available online.
TELDEC DAS ALTE WERK 2564 69056-2 [56:55 + 39:48]
Experience Classicsonline


Since this recording first appeared in 1977, several excellent versions have been added to the catalogue, notably from The Sixteen/Harry Christophers on Coro and from John Eliot Gardiner on Philips. The reissue of the Harnoncourt recording is very inexpensive, with this 2-CD set on sale at around £8.50 in the UK, or as part of a 6-CD set (2564 695677) with Saul, Apollo e Dafne and highlights from Giulio Cesare, for around £20. The Gardiner version, reissued in 2006 on Decca 'The Originals' at around £12, is not much more expensive, while the Coro version from 2005 may be obtained for not much more, at around £15. How does the reissue stand up against the competition?

The first CD opens with a determined account of the opening of the Overture, beginning with typical Harnoncourt attack; at first I thought that he might be emphasising the determination at the expense of the music's other aspects, but he gives full weight to the tenderness of the slow sections without failing to bring out the liveliness of the conclusion. Overall, I welcomed his decision to give the music just a little more time to breathe than John Eliot Gardiner, with Harry Christophers splitting the difference - 6:31 against 6:12 and 6:23 respectively.

As in Messiah, the task of getting the vocal contributions under way falls to the lot of the tenor, here Anthony Rolfe Johnson who, after a slightly tentative recit 'Twas at the royal feast - can an opening recit ever be much more than tentative? - launches into a confident if slightly lightweight Happy pair ... None but the brave, in which he is very well supported by the members of the Stockholm Bach Choir. I'd be surprised if some of the members of this choir hadn't gone on to successful solo careers. All concerned capture the lively spring which this air and chorus deserves. The stopwatch suggests that Christophers and Gardiner take a livelier view of the music here, but I didn't feel that Harnoncourt was at all sluggish.

After the recit Timotheus plac'd on high, Christophers interpolates an orchestral piece associated with Alexander's Feast, the harp version of the Organ Concerto, Op.4/6. Harnoncourt and Gardiner move straight on to the soprano accompagnato The song began from love, which preserves the narrative flow of the music. Felicity Palmer, still a soprano in 1977, delivers a slightly squally account of this, followed by an excellent performance by the choir of The list'ning crowd. Thus far the choir have acquitted themselves better than either of the soloists: if Johnson is a little too lightweight, Palmer is somewhat too large-toned for the ensuing With ravish'd ears.

Stephen Roberts, the third soloist, enters in the recit The praise of Bacchus and, with the choir, in Bacchus, ever fair and young. His light-toned bass voice is attractive, though it doesn't dispel memories of more 'traditionally' deep-toned basses in this music, especially, later, in Revenge, Timotheus cries.

Later inputs from the three soloists are on a par with these first appearances. I was much happier with Felicity Palmer's affective performance of He sung Darius (tr.12) than with her earlier contributions, though even here I think this not one of the best of her many excellent contributions to the repertoire. Once again, Harnoncourt gives a little more weight to this air than does Christophers and I think that it benefits; Gardiner seems to concur. The boot is on the other foot with the arioso Softly sweet (tr.16), though I didn't think Palmer and Harnoncourt too rushed; here, too, Gardiner's tempo is very close to Harnoncourt's.

Yet I still think that it's the Stockholm Bach Choir who emerge the heroes of this recording. Their account of the chorus The many rend the skies and its repeat (trs.18 and 20) rounds off the first CD to excellent effect. Christophers, Gardiner and Harnoncourt are in almost exact agreement over the tempo of these sections, too, though Palmer and Harnoncourt again put a little extra air around the intervening soprano air The Prince, unable to conceal his pain (tr.19), without my ever feeling that the tempo was dragging. Indeed, I really enjoyed Palmer's lightness of tone here. By the end of CD1 I felt that the virtues of this recording outweighed my reservations.

But track 2 of the second CD brings the disappointment of Revenge, Timotheus cries. Stephen Roberts sings with great accomplishment, but his voice is just too lightweight for this air. Oddly, the libretto mistakenly labels it 'tenore', as if in acknowledgement that Roberts' is a very light bass voice. (At least the online libretto has 'basso', correctly). Stephen Varcoe on the Gardiner recording may not be the deepest bass around, but his voice is more powerful than that of Roberts. Michael George, on the Coro recording, is closer still to the ideal; he's also the only one of the three to resist the traditional English pronunciation of Timotheus as if with a long ei diphthong, and go for the more correct short i.

The other disappointment comes at the end of CD2, where Harnoncourt decides to conclude with the - probably spurious - Concert Grosso, Op.3/4a which the publisher Walsh included in the first edition of those works, instead of the Concerto Grosso which is traditionally associated with Alexander's Feast, indeed, which shares its name. There would have been room for both - the second CD is very short.

Whoever composed Op.3/4a, it is well worth hearing and Concentus Musicus under Harnoncourt play it well, but its proper context is in a complete performance of its fellow concertos, as on the Hyperion Helios recording which I recommended some time ago (CDH55075 - see review). Harry Christophers also decides to include another work, the Organ Concerto, Op.4/1, interpolated between Let old Timotheus yield the prize and the concluding section of that chorus, Your voices tune. We know that Handel composed most of the Organ Concertos for use in performance intervals and this concerto does have associations with Alexander's Feast, but it seems odd to ignore the one concerto associated with the work to the extent of sharing its name.

If you prefer to have the other two works associated with the first performance and you're looking for the deepest bass, go for Christophers (Coro COR16028). Only Gardiner includes the Concerto Grosso in C, HWV318, known as 'Alexander's Feast', which he employs to open CD2. Ultimately, therefore, I award him the prize: Decca 'The Originals' 475 7774. At around £12, this is not much more expensive than the Harnoncourt, but if you must economise it's available to download from Amazon.co.uk for £8.99. You won't obtain the libretto, but you have to download that in the case of the Harnoncourt recording, too. Whatever you decide, I don't advise patronising the hopeful soul who, as I write, is offering a used copy of the Harnoncourt recording on Amazon.co.uk for £33.28.

The Telefunken ADD recording still sounds well and the booklet is informative, if rather minimalist and lacking the libretto, albeit with a direction how to obtain this online. This prints out, as usual, too large to fold into the CD set - why don't other companies learn from the likes of Chandos and Gimell to offer these at the right size? You may prefer to cut and paste the libretto from Stanford. If you don't demand the eponymous concerto, you could do much worse.

Brian Wilson

 
 


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